Canada is a bilingual country of almost 37 million people, with both French and English as official languages. Many readers will be aware that most of the 27 per cent of the population who have French as their first language live in Quebec; perhaps fewer realise that there is also a large francophone population in neighbouring New Brunswick, with much smaller populations in other provinces and territories.
There are three French-medium universities outside Quebec – Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, and Université de Saint-Boniface in Manitoba. In addition, there is a francophone faculty with a separate campus, Campus Saint-Jean, within the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Located in Winnipeg, the Université de Saint-Boniface offers general and specialised undergraduate programmes in arts, science, education, nursing, translation, social work, business administration and professional and technical studies to about 1,500 students. Approximately a third of the students are from Manitoba’s own French-language schools, a third are from other provinces and countries (especially francophone Africa) and a third from French immersion schools.
French immersion is an optional primary and secondary school programme providing education in French to mainly English-speaking students. It was first offered in the 1970s to help English-speaking Canadians become bilingual and, at present, about 6.7 per cent of public school students in Alberta and 12 per cent of those in Manitoba are enrolled.
French immersion students also account for about two thirds of the 750 students at Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean, which offers French-language programmes in humanities, education, social and natural sciences, and bilingual programmes in business administration, nursing and environmental studies. The other third are from other provinces and countries.
Saint-Boniface and Saint-Jean are known for their personalised and innovative teaching, language-enrichment programmes and commitment to diverse extracurricular learning experiences. Operating grants from their respective provincial governments provide most of the funding, with tuition fees accounting for another 20 per cent and additional money coming from federal government budgets to promote French in parts of the country where it is a minority language.
Surely it is beyond question that having a diverse group of students helps these universities to educate enlightened citizens. Many of these students realise that the ability to communicate in French and English sharpens their employment prospects and their understanding of social, political and cultural issues in Canada and abroad. Most find rewarding jobs in private companies, hospitals and schools, as well as in the civil services of provincial, territorial and federal governments, where bilingualism is often a requirement.
However, both Saint-Boniface and Saint-Jean are under threat. The recruitment of students is a constant challenge because almost all the students are bilingual, so they could easily attend an English-speaking university. In fact, some of the programmes that bilingual students might want, such as medicine, are not offered at the French institutions at all.
Some people lament that these institutions cannot regain the advantages they had in the past, when French-speaking citizens represented a much larger proportion of the population. But others question the need for French-language post-secondary institutions outside the main francophone population centres in Quebec and New Brunswick. Such a critique misrepresents the role of these institutions, however. A substantial increase in exogenous marriages and a decline in the influence of the Roman Catholic Church have seen the francophone population being increasingly assimilated into the English-speaking, Protestant and agnostic majority in western Canada. Some people think (or hope) that, by emphasising the social, economic and cultural value of bilingualism, French-speaking universities will be a bulwark against this trend.
In addition, western Canada’s francophone universities promote French as a language of study, and as a living, national language. They contribute to the development and reinforcement of a Canadian identity that is bilingual and multicultural. Without them, Canada would undoubtedly be a less vibrant country.
Gabor Csepregi is professor of philosophy at the Université de Saint-Boniface. Rodney A. Clifton is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Manitoba and vice-president for research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.